Just read: 'Batman: The Long Halloween,' 'Batman: Dark Victory' & related stories

 "Just read" is a blog where I blog about something I just read. I'm trying to read more this year and I'd like to keep a record of that; blogging will theoretically help that cause.

This is why I wanted to start reading comic books. The Long Halloween and Dark Victory are widely regarded as two of the best Batman collections ever -- the former is considered by some to be the finest story you can buy in trade paperback format, and the latter is generally a consensus top-10-ish choice -- and I knew this going into these stories. But, given that I haven't been reading comics for very long at all, I wasn't sure if I'd grasp the gravity of these titles on first reading. I figured that maybe I'd enjoy them, but come to appreciate them more after reading several more Batman books down the road. 

the_long_halloween_cover.jpg

I'm sure this is true; I'm sure I'll love The Long Halloween and Dark Victory even more when I read them over and over in the future. Because I'm already very sure that I'm going to keep these books for an extremely long time. Right after I watched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I had a relatively recurring itch to start reading Batman comics again; I wasn't sure why that happened, but after reading these two books, I understand it now. I was looking for Batman stories that would satisfy me in the same way Christopher Nolan's trilogy of movies did. Nolan puts you in the world of Batman in a way no other filmmaker ever has; you're not just rooting for the hero, but you're in the shoes of all his supporting characters, too. From Alfred to Lucius Fox to all the enemies Batman faces, to Catwoman, Ra's and Talia Al Ghul and Bane, the Dark Knight films leave everyone from the most casual to the most diehard Batman fans happy in the story they just experienced. 

The Long Halloween and Dark Victory leave you with that kind of sentiment. These stories are masterpieces, and that's evident even to a comics newbie like me. The writer of these stories, Jeph Loeb, is an expert at balancing long internal character monologues with short, direct and meaningful dialogue. Many key scenes throughout these two story arcs feature Batman or Bruce Wayne at a crossroads, oftentimes confused or wrapped up in situations where he's under extreme duress as he heaps an insane amount of pressure upon himself to do what he does best -- detective work. 

Both The Long Halloween and Dark Victory center themselves around murder mysterious. Both stories take place in the earlier years of Batman's crime-fighting career, and both feature frequent appearances by some of the most common figures in Batman's rogues gallery. The Joker, Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Solomon Grundy, The Riddler, Scarecrow, Calendar Man, The Mad Hatter, Mr. Freeze, the Falcone crime family and (of course, neither villain nor true BFF) Catwoman all appear throughout the two stories at one point or another, occasionally working together or even in the same room. Halloween additionally showcases the "death" of Harvey Dent and the birth / origin story of Two-Face, giving tons of great page time to Jim Gordon throughout. The central plot is about an unknown villain who has been haunting Gotham by murdering people every holiday; the killer, nicknamed Holiday, is finally tracked down (ish) toward the end of the book, but I'm not trying to give away any spoilers. Really, if you have any interest in reading comic books, read this one. 

from 'the long halloween'

from 'the long halloween'

When I read that The Long Halloween was a murder mystery, I don't think I gave the comic book medium enough credit. A mob story, a murder mystery, all of these characters -- it seemed like a huge undertaking, seemed as though it'd be claustrophobic and messy at times. But the 13-part series is laid out and written beautifully, as we never spend too much time with any single villain. There are plenty of side plots to distract you from the main mystery, and the conclusion is deliciously inconclusive. 

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As much as I enjoyed The Long Halloween, I liked Dark Victory more on first reading. I suspect that I'll come to appreciate The Long Halloween more -- I think it's a better story at its core -- but Dark Victory's continuation of a similar murder mystery is rewarding and expertly edited. It doesn't feel corny or gluttonous to read a story with a familiar pulse, and Batman's internal troubles over the loss of his friend, Harvey Dent, provides a great emotional backbone throughout. This time, a serial killer is focusing on knocking out members of Gotham's big crime families, and they leave clues featuring old files stolen from the desk of Dent. The Dent / Two-Face story in this book has an excellent plot, and Catwoman gets her own well-deserved share of the spotlight as well. Dark Victory also tells the origin story and introduces us to Batman's well-known sidekick, Robin. He arrives fairly suddenly, but at the perfect time for a Batman that really, really needs someone to talk to and trust with his true identity. You can feel the introduction of Robin helping Batman move past the loss of Dent. And the treatment of Robin's origin story is delicate and not over-the-top; Batman protects Robin and is dismissive of him starting his own crime-fighting career, but Robin does get a moment to shine towards the end in an awesome dual fight scene. The one knock against Dark Victory is that it really cannot stand on its own; it needs to be read after The Long Halloween, and simply doesn't work without its predecessor. Obviously many comic books are like this, but when you're awarding points for best all-time book or whatever, you might count this in there.

The art in both stories is handled by the wonderful Tim Sale. Batman and Catwoman are drawn perfectly -- the way you remember these characters, even if you've never read a story with his art in it. They just fit. I found myself stopping every so often to take a picture of a particularly dramatic or beautiful frame; Sale is complemented terrifically by the coloring, and many of the "wow!" frames cash in their rewarding "ooo's" and "ahh's" based on that coloring. If it seems like I'm just raving and raving, it's because I can't find too much to complain about here. 

Nolan and the other people who wrote and worked on the Dark Knight trilogy often reference The Long Halloween and Dark Victory as major points of influence for the movies, along with Year One. This influence is easy to see when reading the stories. From certain stylistic choices in the movies to plot points here and there, it'll be clear to a fan of those movies where Nolan took cues from. Pretty neat experience overall to retroactively see how those films were inspired.  

from 'dark victory'

from 'dark victory'

I enjoyed these two books so much that I immediately went and picked up a couple of related works, which weren't included in my initial Batman reading list. I learned The Long Halloween followed a set of three Halloween-themed annual one-offs created by Loeb and Sale, which were collected in the trade paperback Haunted Knight. The three stories focus, respectively, on a drawn-out and rough bout with Scarecrow; a creepy and Gordon-heavy meeting with the Mad Hatter (this was the first time I saw Barbara Gordon in the comics); and the third story is a Christmas Carol-inspired one, but on Halloween instead of Christmas. While these pieces aren't as impressive as the long-arching Long Halloween and Dark Victory, it's cool to see the first steps this creative team took together with their Batman work and the three one-offs work well together as a set. The continuity doesn't match up perfectly with Halloween and Victory, since Loeb and Sale weren't yet aware of the work they' do together afterwards, so you have to suspend that part of your mind a bit, but it's easy enough to do so since the stories are enjoyable on their own merits. I imagined that all of these events took place before those two books even though the events don't slot in perfectly. Whatever.

During Dark Victory, there's a period of a half-year during which Catwoman disappears to Italy. It seems pretty random during that story, because Catwoman / Selina Kyle is playing a pretty big role in the lives of Batman and Bruce Wayne, but we learn a little more about it later and it winds up making retroactive sense. Catwoman: When In Rome is set alongside those six months, detailing her trip overseas to figure out a portion of her past. It's helmed again by Loeb and Sale, and their same mastercraft is on display. Loeb definitely isn't as effective monologuing Catwoman's mind as he is Batman's, and overall the story isn't as good as the huge mysteries of the two graphic novels that precede it, but Catwoman continues to be a badass character and I'm looking forward to reading more of her titles in the future. She's definitely a lot wittier than Batman.

Finally, I downloaded Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet on Comixology. This is a shorter story, a one-off, and it's currently not kept in print by DC. It's a super fast read during which Robin claims he's ready to begin fighting crime around Gotham on his own, or at least helping Batman. He's assigned a challenge to go out into the city at nightfall and elude Batman for the entire night -- if he succeeds, he'll be allowed to accompany Batman from time to time. While hiding from Batman, Robin stumbles upon some organized crime activity and is forced to run away from those guys in addition to Batman throughout the night. The experience of reading this one on Comixology was really enjoyable, and it made me pick up a few new-release issues via the service. I probably won't get down with this for trade paperback-length works, but the shorter one-offs or monthly issues work really well digitally. The format is definitely starting to win me over.

So, yeah. I had a lot to say about these two books and the related works I read. Year One and The Man Who Laughs were both great, but these were an enormous step up and made me really, really look forward to continuing along the Batman journey I've laid out for myself. I'm having a ton of fun reading these and I think I'll be keeping it up for the foreseeable future. I'll probably take a short break from Batman for a bit, to check out some of the Star Wars comics that Marvel has been publishing, then I'll return to Batman with the collected Robin and Batgirl Year One volume. 

The Long Halloween, Dark VictoryHaunted Knight and When In Rome are all available in trade paperback format on Amazon. They're also available (with the exception of When In Romevia Comixology for the digitally inclined. The Gauntlet is available on Comixology as well, and tracking down a physical version will be more difficult and expensive. Clicking on the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.